Ridesharing (Transitprivatizing)

disruptuber

Uber’s executives at “Disrupt SF,” a tech startup industry conference.

With the ridesharing phenomenon, who is being disruptive? Who and what is being disrupted?

“Disruption” is the zeitgeist of Silicon Valley’s tech industry, especially in the realm of startups. The mythos is this: small scrappy hackers with very little capital and a few computers can create new business models that will topple older fossilized companies, even whole industries. In the process the economy will become more efficient and everyone will have more choices. We all win thanks to the new Internet-enabled economy. That’s not at all what is happening in reality, however.

The ideology of disruption goes back a long way in the annals theorizing capitalism, but the current ideology really grows out of the work of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and devout Mormon who has built his academic career on case studies of disruptors. Christensen’s seminal 1998 article in the Harvard Business Review on disruption tells a story about dominant companies atop their industries —Firestone, Xerox, IBM— that were caught flat footed, and in several cases destroyed, by their smaller creative competitors. They failed to innovate and grow beyond their core markets. They failed to recognize the potential of a new technology that would make their existing products and services obsolete. This has fidelity with the actual history of American business.

Christensen, along with his son Matthew, manages a hedge fund that purports to bet on disruptors and short the stock of bumbling giants. Christensen also sponsors a think tank he named after himself, the Christensen Institute, which, according to its web site is, “dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.”

California’s tech entrepreneurs have embraced Christensenian disruption. The big case studies in tech that seem to confirm Christensen’s theory are well known. Digital cameras destroyed film. Personal computers displaced mainframes as the core hardware business, and laptops have since eaten into a huge share of the personal computer market. Now mobile devices are eroding PC sales. None was ever seen as a threat to the existing dominant product and producer, but displacement happened nonetheless. Tapes replaced vinyl, CDs replaced tapes, but MP3s and iTunes-like services have replaced CDs. Cloud is displacing both the idea of storing your data on physical drives you own. Software as a service is chipping away at the idea of buying and owning software. And so on…

In a lot of cases disruption ends up being a battle of big corporations for market share. Consumers and employees within the industry aren’t necessarily better or worse off when the smoke clears and a winner emerges with a new technology and business model.

But the tech boom today is characterized by a another kind of disruption. It’s social disruption. New technologies and business models don’t just attack the existing dominant corporations; they attack social relations and transform non-business spheres of life into methodical instances of economic exchange from which the new tech innovators extract revenue. The tech boom is also characterized by disruption of smaller competitive markets by emergent tech monopolists backed ultimately by huge pools of private equity and giant, monopoly-seeking corporations.

The winners and losers in many cases of disruption are split along existing racial and class lines of inequality. Those with little economic or political power to defend themselves from the disruptors are seeing their livelihoods and communities turned upside down. Their small businesses are being destroyed. Their communities are becoming unaffordable. Those with cultural capital, and access to economic capital have a shot at being disruptive, at skimming some wealth off of deregulated industry and precarious labor. And the wealthy individuals and companies that should be disrupted by a clever tech startup —the tax dodging banks, the Fortune 500, the health care companies and insurance giants— have the resources to defend themselves, fend off the geeks, deploy an equally clever response to retain market share, or to just buyout the scrappy competitor and fold it into their existing empire.

The ridesharing phenomenon reflects all of this and more.

Ridesharing companies like Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar use the ubiquitous ownership of smartphones to connect casual drivers and passenger clients through their proprietary applications. Like any broker they take their cut of the revenue in these transactions, (Lyft, for example, skims 20 percent off each payment made by a passenger through their smartphone.) Ridesharing companies encourage unregulated, hyper-privatized transactions among precarious laborers. Their business model relies on marketizing formerly non-economic spheres of life, like giving a friend a ride in your car, and they have aggressively externalized costs like gas, insurance, payroll, etc. so that profits are maximized and expenses are as close as possible to nonexistent. In doing so they undermine the very existence of the taxi industry, but they also undermine public infrastructure in toto.

Taxis are not just some private sector dinosaur that should be hit from an innovation meteor. Taxis are an integral part of every major city’s transportation infrastructure. Taxis have been strictly regulated to ensure that the industry’s companies and contractor-drivers pay revenue into the city for the infrastructure they use: roads, signals, bridges, signs, sidewalks, etc. In San Francisco taxis generate over ten million dollars each year in revenue for the city to spend on maintaining transport infrastructure. The funds also pay for the costs of regulating the industry through the Taxi Commission. Regulators attempt to shape the industry in important ways to make it more accessible and equitable and therefore democratic. For example, San Francisco’s taxi fleet is 85 percent hybrid or CNG fueled, reducing the fleet’s carbon emissions and improving the health of city residents. This environmental standard is only possible because the industry is regulated, and ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft undermine this effort. Taxis are also required not to discriminate among passengers, and to serve all parts of the city, among other things that might not be maximally profitable. It’s this public transportation infrastructure, a big part of which is comprised of taxis, that is being disrupted by the ridesharing companies who have inserted themselves as for-profit brokers in the transportation commons.

NationalOriginTaxiDriversByMetroAreaThe people who will lose the most from the unbridled rise of ridesharing are those employed by the taxi industry which is seeing profits disappear. San Francisco’s taxi industry is very decentralized and highly competitive. There are about 31 cab companies today served by 10 dispatch companies, some quite big and some very small. No single firm is dominant. There are about 1,500 cabs authorized to drive within the city. The taxi industry employes several thousand workers. Taxi drivers are predominantly immigrants and people of color, and the average cabbie earns a very low yearly income. In 2000 upwards of 57 percent of San Francisco cab drivers were immigrants, with the largest groups having arrived from South Asia, East Asia, Russia and Africa. Of the 1,540 taxi drivers in the San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City metro region the hourly mean wage last year was $14.17, and the annual mean income was a mere $22,440.

Untitled Image 3When people say the taxi industry is “ripe for disruption,” what they’re saying, besides the real inefficiencies and problems affecting most big city taxi operations, is that it is a decentralized, highly competitive industry, most of whose owners and operators are low-income people of color, many of who are immigrants. They are susceptible because they are marginalized, and because they lack political and economic clout. In San Francisco the cabbies are definitely a noisy political lobby, but up against the tech and venture capital bosses and entrepreneurs, who are most influential in the Mayor’s office, the cab drivers are impotent.

That’s who is being disrupted, a competitive industry that is owned by, and which employes, working class people of color.

So who’s doing the disrupting? Who benefits from this attack on the taxi industry, and more generally on the principle of a regulated transportation sector?

RideShareCorpFundRaisingGraphThe two biggest ridesharing companies in San Francisco are Uber and Lyft. Although they virtually didn’t exist until two years ago, between them they have raised about $390 million over the past 2 years according to securities filings with the state and SEC. Uber and Lyft are quickly expanding their ridesharing enterprises to New York, LA, Chicago, and other cities far beyond the laboratory of San Francisco.

Where is this money coming from?

David Bonderman of TPG Capital, an Uber investor and board member.

David Bonderman of TPG Capital, an Uber investor and board member.

Uber’s financial backers include Goldman Sachs, Google Ventures, and four other private equity groups. Perhaps Uber’s biggest financial backer is TPG Capital. Co-founder of TPG, David Bonderman, one of the wealthiest men on earth, is now on Uber’s board of directors. Bonderman’s personal net worth is somewhere in the ballpark of $2.6 billion. TPG reportedly has $55 billion in funds under management making it one of the largest private equity firms in the world.

Menlo Ventures partners and managing directors, demographically representative of Silicon Valley's venture capital industry.

Menlo Ventures’ partners and managing directors, demographically representative of Silicon Valley’s venture capital industry.

Uber’s other investors like Menlo Ventures, Benchmark Capital, and First Round Capital are pretty typical of Silicon Valley’s private equity network. The firms are owned and run by mostly white men with Ivy League college pedigrees, places like Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, Yale and other bastions of privilege. The partners at these firms are millionaires, and billionaires are not uncommon. They leverage pension fund, university endowment, and sovereign wealth dollars to invest in speculative ventures as well as established companies (and from their limited partners they extract hefty management fees). To call them members of the 1% would be inaccurate. Many of Silicon Valley’s private equity investors quality as bona fide members of the 0.1% due to the large sums of wealth and income at their command. While most are socially liberal, many of them make political investments with influential Democratic and Republican members of Congress to ensure the country’s tax code and business laws allow them maximally build their fortunes.

Lyft’s financial beneficiaries are similarly elite members of the economic hierarchy. Earlier this year Zimride, the ridesharing company that developed Lyft, sold its Zimride ride-sharing application to Enterprise Holdings for an undisclosed sum. (Zimride was the equivalent of a combined craigslist ride-sharing bulletin board and Facebook.) Enterprise Holdings is a giant global corporation that booked $15.4 billion in revenue last year. As a private corporation, Enterprise is owned and controlled by the Taylor family of St. Louis. Jack Taylor, the family’s patriarch, is reportedly worth $11 billion. The Enterprise acquisition of Zimride is an example of how powerful corporate interest often respond to potential disruptors who might undermine their existing product; they purchase them and integrate them into their larger operations. In this case Enterprise, which peddles rental cars it owns, saw Zimride as something that could disrupt their profit stream, so Enterprise gobbled up the disruptor. The way Enterprise does business is changing as a result, but the distribution of economic power isn’t shifting.

marc-andreessen-google-glass

Marc Andreessen wearing Google Glass.

Zimride’s Lyft ridesharing product which directly competes with taxi companies and bigger competitors like Uber received $80 million this year, mostly from the Andreessen Horowitz private equity firm. Again, Andreessen Horowitz is about as wealthy and establishment as you can imagine in American business. Marc Adreesseen, who half the firm is named for, got rich from developing one of the first web browsers. From the fortune he obtained doing that he invested in other big tech companies and became wealthy. Today Andreessen is a director of HP and Ebay, two Fortune 500 companies, as well as a director of Facebook.

Ben Horowitz (son of the arch-conservative David Horowitz) was a founder of Opsware, a company Hewlett Packard bought for over a billion dollars back in 2007. Andreessen was a funder of that company. Opsware was possibly a disruptor to established tech companies like HP, so HP devoured it.

Andreessen Horowitz manages probably upwards of $3 billion, and they have dozens of investments. They’re major backers of other disruptive tech startups like Airbnb and Udacity, two companies that are similar to ridesharing in that they are threatening the welfare and livelihoods of low-income communities and politically less powerful workers within the precariat.

Look across the other smaller ridesharing startups that are competing for market share in this gold rush sector and you’ll see similar stories, fast growing companies with very disruptive business plans backed by very powerful investors. The people who’s lives will be most disrupted are going to be the less powerful working class who toil in the competitive and disorganized taxi and other transit industries. The public sector will be disrupted as it is partially privatized and as regulations are undermined in favor of new rules that allow tech companies to externalize costs as much as possible onto precarious workers. More and more parts of our lives will be transformed into relationships of market exchange. As San Francisco’s recent battles over ridesharing show, this is by no means a “natural” process. It’s politically determined as to what kind of economy we want, and how the rules of the economy will distribute wealth and income and provision for public goods.

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17 comments
  1. Franlin Graham said:

    Very interesting and informative. With so much money being controlled by private equity, why would any average investor want to even come close to the stock market? The investment environment is essentially rigged so that only the insider investors in private equity get the cream. To call this being rigged is a charitable description of what is going on.

  2. Larry Wilson said:

    Actually taxis are a dinosaur industry and do need to be hit by something. The fact is that the current taxi industry does not meet the need of consumer’s in San Francisco. If it did, Uber, Lyft etc.would not be so popular.
    Your justification for the existing regulatory scheme (modest revenue, carbon emissions non-discrimination) is rather slim and could be easily accomplished without giving taxi companies a monopoly. For example, why can’t Lyft be prohibited from discriminating? Your slavish devotion to the status quo shows a real lack of imagination.
    What you fail to acknowledge is that the taxi industry is regulated because the taxi industry wants regulation in order to avoid competition. It is as simple as that. The needs of consumers are not the concern of the taxi industry. Nor does the taxi industry care about drivers. As your data points out, drivers are poorly compensated because they are completely beholden to taxi cab companies. Why don’t you care about those drivers?
    The bias inherent in your story is laughable. Why is important Christensen that is a devout Mormon? Or do just dislike Mormons and assume others do to. Why do you use dumb terms like “arch-conservative”, when they are irrelevant.
    You seem to be unable to accept that innovation is important and has improved people lives because you downplay the disruptive technologies that you describe. But any rationale observer would accept that our society has benefited greatly from those changes.
    In the end, you support a status quo where consumers needs aren’t met, drivers are exploited, and taxi cab companies benefit from monopoly powers. How progressive of you.

    • Hi Larry,
      Thanks for the comment. You are right that there are multiple serious problems with taxis, and those problems are among the reasons why the industry has been considered ripe for “disruption.”
      You may be right that Lyft could be prohibited from discriminating in terms of passengers, but Lyft drivers currently are not, and that’s what matters. That’s the meaning of deregulation and privatization here. Lyft’s vehicle fleet is not regulated by the city, so there are no environmental or safety policies the company must conform with beyond what the company itself chooses to impose on its drivers. And San Francisco gets no revenue from Lyft (and the other ridesharing companies), and I’m not sure why you think then tens of millions in annual revenue is “slim.” Seems rather important to the public, just like the environmental and social equity goals.
      As for Christensen’s religious beliefs, I added them because Christensen himself features them on his personal web site. Did you follow the links I provided? http://www.claytonchristensen.com/ Obviously Christensen thinks his beliefs are an important aspect of his economic theorizing, and I would agree; they shape his ideas about “disruption.”
      Arch-conservative is a term that accurately describes David Horowitz. I’ll just assume you’re unfamiliar with who that is, but you should read up on his lifelong career to promote extreme Right economic and social policies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Horowitz

    • mrjhnsn said:

      This misconception that taxi companies are an evil “monopoly” is laughable. Taxi companies (in San Francisco at least) are small businesses that have been building their taxi leasing business for many years. The problem with service in San Francisco is not the drivers or the “dinosaur” taxi companies, or for that matter the regulations. The problem with service to the city is the lack of accountability for the drivers and passengers alike under the existing dispatch arrangement. Taxi companies have no obligation or motivation to insure that customers get a cab when they want one because the people taking the cabs are not the customers of the cab company. The cab companies’ customers are the taxi drivers. Apps like Flywheel (formerly Cabulous) provide the customers and the drivers the mutual accountability and ease of communication that everyone wants and existed before Uber. This meets the needs for both consumers in the taxi world: the drivers and the passengers. This also bypasses the poor dispatch arrangement between the companies and the drivers. As a driver, dispatcher and rider I know all sides of the business and can with authority tell you that companies like Uber and Lyft with their huge investments by venture capital are the exact type of exploitative “monopoly/duopoly” that you claim taxi companies are. In fact those companies push all the liability, risk and vehicle maintenance on the contacted drivers while taking nearly the same amount as taxi companies from the drivers. So when you ride in an Uber or Lyft your money is not going to benefit the “little guy”; its going to benefit the investors in those companies. When you include the tax breaks these companies are getting by being based in SF and the unreported income that the drivers are making you now are contributing to the problems with getting around SF, not helping. This will ultimately lead to a race to the bottom with the poor, elderly, disabled and tourists all suffering so you can have some dummy who doesn’t live in or know the city drive you in his personal car with no real insurance or ride in a black car like the baller you wish you were, all within minutes of your request. Use Flywheel, flag a taxi on the street and help keep your city streets safe, well maintained and insuring that the people who need cabs (elderly, disabled, etc) will get equal and fair service without discrimination and prices controlled by the city and not by a VC backing an illegal taxi service. Uber and Lyft are preying on the marginally employed and the riding public putting everyone in physical and financial danger for a profit. This is the exact opposite of the pink kool aid they are feeding the public. Safety is the least of their concerns. Corporate profits and stomping out the “little guy” like Walmart does, is all these companies care about. Know your facts before you pontificate about how great Uber and Lyft are.
      Here is a link to a legal challenge by the Taxi and Paratransit Association of California against the CPUC with some pretty damning examples of the legal problems at stake here: http://www.sfcda.org/archives/796

    • francoise said:

      I think that the point made here is about the impoverishment of the working class in our society. The worker does not benefit from the actual shift but is, in fact under the pretense of liberating the industry, paid less and his safety is endangered. That is why there is a government and regulations.

  3. carl macmurdo said:

    Thanks, Darwin, for this very important and insightful article. I have forwarded it to the Board of Directors here in San Francisco both for the Supervisors and the SFMTA.

  4. TP said:

    One unintended benefit of Uber here in DC is that folks who have traditionally had trouble hailing a cab on our city’s streets (those who experience racial profiling) have been able to get a car securely. Also, to my knowledge, many of the same people who work as taxi operators “moonlight” for Uber, so they are just increasing their earnings.

    I’ve also found the service to be wildly more reliable than the yellow cabs. I certainly don’t believe that this is always the case when services are privatized (rather than city regulated), but it has been the case here. Many of the cabbies I’ve spoken to feel safer working with Uber because they can rate their riders (who can’t be anonymous). This is particularly important in a city where the memories of being mugged at gunpoint are still fresh for some of these drivers. Again, not like these kinds of innovations can only happen in the private sector, but for now, that’s what’s happening.

    I certainly find these “disruptions” concerning (and I think your analysis of the racial/class dynamics of these interest groups is spot on), but I’m not sure that Uber is a worthy target.

    • Tanya, thanks for the perspective on D.C. None of this I was aware of.

    • francoise said:

      I wander if Uber goes to the Bayview at 10pm? The reality is that most drivers are going to refuse a ride they consider potentially dangerous, that is Uber or Yellow Cab. The driver will go to someone that has already established a relationship with the company or themselves, the name of the company does not matter. I am also concerned with the fact that we are talking about business people and not the person going shopping for groceries or grandma going to her medical appointment.
      Flywheel and taxi magic, the 2 apps used by the cab companies play the same role as the Uber app.
      One thing never mentioned is Uber charges more for busy time. The Bart strike was a gold mine! One of my passenger told me she usually calls Uber but the price charged for the ride was ridiculously high, so she flagged a cab.
      What happens if the cab companies go bankrupt and Uber dominates the market? The prices of the rides Uber made competitive with the cab industry will shot up and the passenger will have no more choices but Muni or Bart…

    • Taxi drivers drive for uber to “increase” their (thanks to uber) decreased income. After all expenses ends up being less than a wash.
      “Ridesharing” companies expect the general public to foot the bill for improper liability and damage insurance, but insurance companies don’t agree with them, who wins and who looses?
      Now customers call a taxi at the same time they order their uber, once in my taxi they cancel their uber, I only wonder.
      Ratings only work with fair minded, unbiased people.

  5. BHK said:

    I talk to my Uber drivers all the time. It is really interesting to hear about how they think about their business as an Uber driver. A huge fraction of the Uber drivers are also immigrants / minorities. There are lots of Yemini and Palestinian UberX drivers in SF that have only been in the US for a few years. Two have been Burmese.

    These are hardworking people. Many are ex-Taxi drivers (especially after the CPUC ruling). Almost all of them *LOVE* their jobs. They talk about things like the flexibility of being able to work when they want. With a taxi they need to work a 12 hour shift, with UberX then can turn the app off whenever the want and go pick up their kids or got to parent-teacher meetings. The ex-taxi drivers describe themseslves as “freed” from the “gate” (the $115/shift fee they paid for their taxi). I’d suggest you take 20 trips on UberX and talk to the drivers. Ask about the the backgrounds of the drivers, how many own their cars, how many were ex-Taxi drivers or security guards. How many are students or artists working part time to make ends meet?

    Focusing on the investors in Uber and Lyft misses the point that each of the individual drivers is an entrepreneur and creating a small business for themselves. In UberX the drivers generally own their own cars. Many borrowed from family members to make a down payment. With UberBlack (where the driver need not be the owner of the car) I’ve spoken to many drivers who used to drive for someone else, saved up money for a down payment on a town car and opened their own limo company doing 90% of their business with Uber. Some even bought a second and third card to lease to others (who then eventually leave to go buy their own cars).

    Uber driver’s discriminate less than cabs. Try taking a cab on a busy night from downtown to the outer sunset. Many cab drivers ask you to get out of the car. They don’t want a fare to “the avenues” becuase they don’t think they can get a ride back. Uber drivers are rated 1-5 stars by the passenger after each trip. They work hard to get 5 stars because uber gives them trouble if their ratings fall below a certain standard. They don’t complain at all about trips to neighborhoods that Taxis complain about (or refuse service)all the time.

    I think you do have a fair point about emissions. When UberX first launched it was entirely hybrid vehicles. Since they have been chasing Lyft earlier this year they have let in almost any late model vehicle with four doors and there aren’t as many “green” vehicles.

    • francoise said:

      Many Uber drivers are taxi drivers or ex taxi drivers. The reason why they pay a gate is purchase of car, car repair and maintenance and the cost of commercial insurance which means that passenger and driver are protected. The companies surprisingly make marginal profits.
      I agree that the idea of driving whenever the driver wants is attractive but if I remember well, a driver is not supposed to be driving legally more than 10 hours, 12 at the most for safety reasons. As you said, most are immigrants and work hard.
      Another point is, in the taxi industry the person who drives is the person who is supposed to drive.
      I wonder how the driver is going to feel when his car reaches 200000 miles or more or when he has an accident that totals his car. Which kind of insurance that driver has? How much does it eats into his profit?
      As a taxi driver I do take people to the Sunset but I agree with you, it is a shame that there is such attitude. I personally blame the cab companies for lack of training and reinforcement. We are a service industry and I love and respect the passengers I serve .
      What we are really talking about here is, under the disguise of an innovative ride sharing industry we are dealing with a capitalist industry that used sugar coated words to lure but only think of profits. Think about how much Uber charges at peak time or ask a driver for Lyft what happens if he has an accident with his personally insured car.

  6. Crabby cabbie said:

    It is the big cab companies to blame for poor service. They refuse to make the entire fleet more efficient by dint of even crude technology.
    The reason for this is they don’t share the fares with drivers so the only way to better profits is more cabs in their fleet to rent to drivers. If a driver picks up 100 passengers or zero the cab co. profit is the same. They can complain that they need more cabs because they can’t fill their orders.
    Call a cab from a busy intersection and watch the empty cabs from other companies go past without a fare inside. That is high inefficiency at work. The big boys use their political connections to hold down efficiency and commit suicide at the same time

  7. mrjhnsn said:

    Reblogged this on Are you %&#$ serious? and commented:
    This author really nails it…. I highly recommend this read.

  8. You write an article on an important topic but selectively choose points. People who are “ridesharing” -especially if it is along their preplanned route are AUTOMATICALLY reducing emissions in terms of per passenger mile.

    Safety: I think normal auto safety is ALREADY regulated by the DMV and private cars who are ferrying passengers are less likely to drive at the crazy speeds we see cabs drive by all the time.

    Yes, the commissions charged by Uber/Lyft are high in my opinion (especially when done as a % basis for longer distance fares, but hopefully people figure out that using a minimum listed fare and then dealing the rest in cash might work well for everyone in the long run. if the city is losing revenue that it is not making from gasoline taxes, then they need to cut wasteful spending. As long as cars ply on fuels, enough revenue will be generated. But if you go all electric cars, then the city has to figure out other type of revenue for maintaining infrastructure. There is a grain of truth in that sense.

    That’s some good research on letting us know about Zimride’s takeover by Entreprise Holdings. How come google or any of the big techs did not end up purchasing any of these App companies?

  9. EarlH said:

    I know I’m late to the party, but I have to question if Darwin has ever *used* a taxi in sf.

    Want to know what the advantage of Uber is? It comes. When I badly broke my ankle and was on crutches for 9 months, I regularly had to wait an hour or more to get a taxi at 24th and Valencia. (btw, I was taking taxis every day because I couldn’t use public transport. Think that got me better service? Ha!) At least one every other week I would wait for more than 2 hours. Good luck getting a taxi near bar time; you’ll often wait 90 minutes or more. The simple fact is that taxis in sf are utterly broken and treat their customers like crap. Uber, on the other hand, doesn’t like to you and say “we’ll be there in 15 minutes” no matter whether they mean 15, 45, 90, or three hours. If Uber can’t come they tell you that and allow you to make alternate plans. It’s a bummer for the taxi employees but they are delivering an awful service and have treated me like crap so screw them.

  10. Crabby cabbie said:

    It costs a lot of money to have an engineer design a 20 story building or a surgeon to fix your injured brain so why not dispense with all these damn regulations and education and let anybody perform these tasks because they say they are “professional.” Just think how much cheaper and quicker we could get these things done.

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